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Q*bert (Arcade) artwork

Q*bert (Arcade) review

"Q*Bert is one of the first arcade games I feel I really solved. I don't mean that I figured how to beat the hardest level until I got bored of it, like you would in Asteroids or something. I also don't mean reaching the end like when you flip the level bit in Pac-Man or even escape Dr. Boom in Cloak and Dagger."

Q*Bert is one of the first arcade games I feel I really solved. I don't mean that I figured how to beat the hardest level until I got bored of it, like you would in Asteroids or something. I also don't mean reaching the end like when you flip the level bit in Pac-Man or even escape Dr. Boom in Cloak and Dagger. It's about planning through and knowing what risks to take and creating a rough, yet robust, strategy to win once the levels start looping. You only have four moves at any time, but enough monsters fall randomly to provide variety and require flexible strategy. Q*Bert naturally allows for mistakes while forcing the player to be pretty sharp, which is unusual among the quarter-munchers of the early arcade frenzy. You have to think fast not only to avoid monsters but to go everywhere you need, and the relatively small board means you always had to change course, too.

Most retro fans probably know how Q*Bert bounces diagonally on a seven-high-and-wide triangle of squares, changing their color as he goes. Once they're all the target color, he wins and moves on. Red balls drop from the second-top row to the bottom and fall off, and the purple ball that drops down turns into Coily, the snake, who chases Q*Bert. He can use discs off the side of the pyramid to lure Coily into falling off. Later levels have Sam and Slick, whom you can intercept, undoing Q'Bert 's work and Ugg and Wrong-Way, who kill you, coming in from the side. Often you'll need that green ball to drop, as it freezes monsters long enough for you to color the last few squares in, and waiting two squares below something--to grab it or avoid it. Things speed up and monsters appear more quickly, but perhaps the cleverest twist is how, at the later levels, Q*Bert can change a correctly colored square.

As a kid, I thought this made the game nearly impossible. I barely had the endurance to fight through when you had to step on each square twice. I remember watching big college kids figuring it out, or trying to, and expecting you needed calculus or something. You don't, of course, but it's enough of a challenge that I remember plotting the game out after it was over. That's something I couldn't do with flashier shooters or action adventure games. I mean, I could rehash those to friends or family members who didn't really want to listen, but that doesn't count. I wasn't going forward or learning.

But Q*Bert lends itself to all kinds of odd problem-solving--one of them being how to use emulators to make it easier. The diagonal controls forced you to hold a controller or keyboard at an angle, and I remember being pleased when I got to tinker with joypad emulators so I could use keys that were actually in diagonal directions. And in the game itself, experience can teach you a lot about how to cover the levels that alternate between color A and B. There's always the possibility of one lousy last square, but then once you learn how to cover it (lots of moving back and forth,) the game suddenly makes sense and seems fair. The A-B-C-B-C pattern of the next level seems doable. And hey, you get about two extra guys every three boards.

Then comes the final set of levels where, eventually, one layout just repeats. You cycle through three colors there, and Sam and Slick frequently mess up your work. In these levels it's quite possible that the best way to solve them is to get killed or flat-out jump off the pyramid. You see, as you use up your discs to ditch Coily, which also clears the board of enemies, you may wind up with a board arrangement that cannot be solved even if monsters didn't appear. A parity argument like the famous checkerboard and dominoes problem proves this (you compare checksums for odd vs. even rows,) and so knowing when to give up is critical. The closest an old-school game gets to this is Robotron, but even that was more about budgeting the extra lives you got through the tougher levels and knowing when to forget about point bonuses and just kill everyone else. In Q*Bert, killing yourself is often the best move, because the board may get undone further if you mess around. The grace periods after dying or luring Coily off are so valuable.

I've always liked Q*Bert's little touches, though, like how the colors change is shown in a tutorial before each set of levels. The discs pop up in random areas, and the pyramid and square colors change frequently, and I actually enjoyed the levels with pastel squares on a black background. And when the pyramid is crowded, all the noises you and your opponents make give the game a very busy feel. All this probably isn't as famous as the random noise following Q*Bert's shift-number nonsense when he gets caught, but it's all comfortingly surreal and somehow is just right for moving you along to cover the squares you need to. The high score list and message for the various ranks you get are nice touches ("You are the supreme noser!")

Q*Bert offers many clear goals which aren't explicitly stated in any manual or instruction screen, but they make you feel clever nonetheless. Completing the first scene where you color the squares differently, or even figuring why or how a different strategy works better, is rewarding. While even many action puzzlers have just one solution, Q*Bert forces you to generalize and even calculate probabilities--which way should this ball drop, or how don't I get stuck in the corner square, or how do I find a good square where I can rest for a few seconds as Coily comes by? The actual strategy, once you realize it, is simple in the big picture: hit the corners, where you enemies can't follow first, then work your way to the center and hope to clear the top bits out when an enemy doesn't drop. And unfortunately in the time you take to master it, the early levels may get tedious and cause stupid mistakes. That happened to me--I wanted to move beyond the simple, reflexive bits I'd long since mastered. I suppose it's called teaching when a person does that for another.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (March 26, 2012)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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